Some on the Radical Queer Left Still Think Gay Marriage Is Bad for the LGBTQ Community
"If society is garbage, then full acceptance doesn't mean much, right?" says activist and author Ryan Conrad.
Given the euphoria that swept across America's LGBTQ community—and throughout the world—after the US Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage from coast to coast last June, you'd think every queer person in the universe couldn't wait to prance down the aisle and tie the knot. And in Canada, the entire issue seems a bit, well, passe, given that we've had legal same-sex marriages for over a decade.
But some queers have expressed ambivalence, and even some irritation, about quite so much political and financial energy being channelled into the long, drawn-out fight to legalize such unions. Marriage, they point out, has a long and problematic legal history, one that includes the notion of a wife being akin to property, not to mention the exclusion of interracial marriages.
And as we're seeing with the arrest and subsequent release of Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and to the ongoing fight for legal recognition of same-sex marriages in Australia (not to mention much of the rest of the world), the issue is far from over.
Ryan Conrad is an activist, author, and doctoral student at Montreal's Concordia University who has written and lectured extensively on the topic, expressing his philosophical and practical reasons for sober second thoughts about that rush to the altar. As he points out, the benefits many are looking for as a result of getting wed are ones that should simply be universal rights. Along with his cohorts at the Against Equality Collective, Conrad has published a number of books challenging libleft gay orthodoxy, including the 2011 volume Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage. Conrad spoke to VICE from his Montreal Plateau apartment.
VICE: There's been a lot of euphoria about the US Supreme Court decision of the summer regarding same-sex marriage. Is the issue behind us?
Ryan Conrad: Well I guess that depends on what you think the issue is. Is the issue making sure that all people regardless of what configuration their family takes have the legal protections necessary to maintain their safety and well-being? Then no, certainly not. If the issue is simply giving same-sex couples access to a deeply inequitable institution that gives benefits to some conjugal couples, primarily those with some form of wealth or property, and penalizes single people and other conjugal couples, particularly those who are disabled and/or on some sort of state benefits (what little still exists in the US), then yes. That has been achieved. But to be clear, while gay marriage activists have been claiming to be fighting for "ALL FAMILIES" they have in fact only been fighting for families that look exactly like the ideal of straight family—an intimate, couple-led household with a few kids. Everyone else can basically go fuck themselves under the current family law regime in the US.
You have argued these extensive legal struggles have actually hurt progress for LGBTQ people...
Again, this all depends on what you consider progress and the LGBT marriage maniacs are not all that interested in thinking critically about what "progress" or "equality" actually means. With gay marriage now the law of the land it has only reinforced the logic that all people should be meeting their needs through the family unit. One need look no further than the outpouring of conservative and corporate support of gay marriage in the pages of Bloomberg, The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal, where corporate analysts touted gay marriage as a way to get more people off welfare and into so-called "stable" and "respectable" families, all of which is good for business. So this newly retrenched ideology of family throws non-traditional families under the bus—from single parents to polyamorous folks, from adult children who have a live-in elderly parent to blended family households. Not to mention the psychological effect of the monolithic gay marriage campaigns on young queer people who are now subjected to the expectation and pressure to marry. The campaigns for gay marriage have essentially put forth the image that getting married is the way to have a healthy relationship and to be successful and respectable. Let's be real, that isn't going to work out for most people, gay or straight, if divorce rates are any indication—and I'm waiting to see what the fallout will be in the coming years.
You also make the argument that tons of money has been pumped into these legal struggles.
A lot of money has been squandered on these gay marriage campaigns and I think there are growing numbers of people that are sympathetic to this critique. The Human Rights Campaign being the largest and most well-funded nonprofit (quite the misnomer at this point) is hand-in-hand with big business, with their current president making nearly a half million dollars a year in salary. But I worry that focusing just on the disproportionate amount of money spent on gay marriage campaigns and the budgets of these so-called nonprofits that are circulating all this money gets marriage itself as a political goal off the hook. It seems more and more people are able to see gay marriage as maybe not the best priority at this moment, which I generally agree with, but marriage in itself is still a bad goal. Most of us on the queer left want to see an end to marriage privilege and fight for a world where marital status does not impact one's ability to protect their family, access social safety nets, cross national borders, access health insurance, etc. None of these things should be tied to marriage, they should come with our existence as people on this earth much like Chrys Ingraham was arguing well before gay marriage was legalized. And I'm not just some crazy wingnut saying this, so did the Law Commission of Canada and queer feminist family law scholars like Nancy Polikoff and Nicola Barker amongst many others.
Do you understand how some gay people see this as gaining full acceptance from a society?
Sure, but if society is garbage, then full acceptance doesn't mean much, right? As activist and writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore asks, "When did our dreams get so small?"
When you lecture about these issues, do people get angry with you? Some people feel very strongly about these battles and victories.
Yasmin Nair and I received death threats on social media because of our work with Against Equality in 2010. Funnily enough, it's not homophobic right-wing Christians that want us dead, but liberal LGBTs. A lot of people take our critique of marriage very personally, as if any of us from the AE collective actually has the time or energy to care about what people do on a personal level. None of us really care about people's personal decisions regarding marriage and love. What we care about is the structural dimension of how these decisions give people access to certain cultural institutions and with that, access to things like economic benefits, healthcare, and immigration. Simply telling people to not get gay-married if they don't like it is idiotic when marriage is the only way to access family law that provides economic and emotional well-being for a family. So no, this isn't about you and your sweatshop-made wedding dresses and blood diamond engagement rings, but about the political and economic context in which your marriage exists. It's why I collaborated with my friend Alexandra Silverthorne on the satirical photo series where I smash up a fictitious gay wedding. People take this critique so personally so I thought I would poke fun at this assumption by giving myself a gay marriage terrorist makeover.
You are in some cases aligned with people who oppose same-sex marriage basically out of homophobia. Does that make you squirm?
The either/or-ness of your question sounds a bit like George W. Bush's "you're either with us or with the terrorists." This kind of comment, which we've heard often, works to disarm any criticism from the left and put a chill on dissent. But this accusation is actually quite humorous to me as well. Against Equality and myself are the religious right's worst nightmares as we do indeed wish to destroy the ideology of family and the State as we know it. So to put us in the same boat with right-wingers, or to suggest that we have internalized homophobia to deal with as some have suggested, doesn't really make sense. Unlike radical feminists of yesteryear who opposed pornography and worked hand in hand with the religious right to criminalize it and present day abolitionist feminists who work with religious fundamentalists to ruin the lives of sex workers, we make no such opportunistic alliances.
Don't you ever want to settle down with a sweet guy, eat crow about what you've said, and exchange rings, then spend your weekends at IKEA and the fruit and vegetable market in between gardening your perfectly-manicured yard?
What I want for my personal life is rather irrelevant. I've been trying to make it clear that my critique and the critiques that many others on the queer left make are about structural inequity rather than personal choices. Plus, if I was ever going to get legally married I'd used it to support a non-status refugee to get their papers, nothing else.
Even if the guy proposing to you is Zac Efron?
What homo doesn't want to pound that fuzzy lil' muscle butt? But marriage? No thanks!